OPINION: Vets' research a body blow to racing's image

OPINION: On APR 3, 2012 | The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect the views of Animals Australia.

AUSTRALIAN racing's addiction to whipping horses has come under more scrutiny, this time from the Australian Veterinary Association.

The AVA president, Barry Smyth, said yesterday that it had grave concerns that a recent study showed that over 15 races, horses were struck 75 per cent of the time on the abdomen or flank.

Smyth said that AVA's position of whip use was clear. "We would consider horses being struck on the abdomen very seriously," he told The Australian yesterday.

Smyth said that his association had revisited the matter of whipping in thoroughbred racing last year. Those discussions saw the AVA's position changed to read: "Incorrect use of a whip includes the use of the whip on any part of the body other than the hindquarters or the shoulder and any use that results in welts or breaks the horse's skin or causes psychological injury to the horse.

"There should be additional research into the use of whips in horse racing."

The AVA's position statement equates whipping a horse on the abdomen or flank as equal and as cruel as whipping a horse with such force that it causes welts.

The further research called for by the AVA was delivered last week when Sydney University veterinarian scientists produced compelling research on 15 races over two meetings at Gosford last year.

The research team, headed by Professor Paul McGreevy, studied high resolution slow motion digital photography and found over the two meetings that there were at least 28 breaches of racing's whip rules.

The researchers also found the whip "caused a visible indentation on 83 per cent of impacts. The unpadded section of the whip made contact on 64 per cent of impacts."

The research, peer reviewed and published in the Public Library of Science on March 27, brings the ability of stewards to properly patrol whip rules into question.

While the Australian rules governing the use of the whip do not specifically mention impact on the abdomen, the country is a signatory to an overriding agreement with the International Federation of Horse Racing Authorities. The agreement signed by nearly 50 countries says categorically that whipping a horse on the flank is an example of prohibited whip use.

The McGreevy study found that over the Gosford race meetings 75 per cent of whip strikes were to the horse's abdomen or flank.

Smyth expects the AVA to review its position on the whip in light of this latest research. "I would expect members to bring this matter to the attention of the policy committee," he said yesterday.

Smyth also said the racing stewards should be armed with the same equipment used by the research team if it would help better police the rules.

It has been a wretched week for racing, drawing the usual arrogant defence of the indefensible. Australian Racing Board chief executive Andrew Harding described last week's whip research paper as "pseudo science".

The first race of the new jumping season in Victoria last Wednesday brought a fatality and public criticism when nine-year-old gelding Jotilla was destroyed after falling and breaking a shoulder in a steeple at Sandown. Mike Symons, chairman of the Melbourne Racing Club, which controls Sandown, said this in a tweet: "Jumps racing needs to focus on yet another safe and successful season whilst recognising that some fatalities will occur. The rest is noise." So much for the considered public polling that consistently and overwhelmingly wants an end to jumps racing. Symons' statement is a numbing and embarrassing mix of condescension and ignorance.

Others point to critics of both the whip and jumps racing as a rowdy minority. However, it is racing that is shrinking and thus retreating into the innards of media coverage. Racing is a minority tolerated less and less by a community concerned about the welfare of horses.

Even on its biggest and richest stage racing stumbles. The Dubai World Cup meeting ended shambolically and so sadly on Sunday. The $1m Gold Cup was halted when the Godolphin horse Fox Hunt fell and was destroyed but could not be moved quickly enough for the remaining horses to complete the race. Unbelievably, the race was re-run as the final event and this time Bronze Cannon fractured a front leg and was destroyed.

There are few sports or businesses that are as incapable of caring for their participants and image as racing. It needs new management.

Patrick Smith for The Australian.

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